Monday, December 10, 2012


Warning: My dog woke me up at 3:30am and I couldn't go back to sleep so I am writing this post between yawns, with sleepy eyes, and in a cloud of stinky dog breath (his not mine). Please consider that when reading my ramblings and what is sure to be many grammar and spelling errors. ;) 

Wilson Court on Mellon St in Congress Heights
I was in the process of updating CHotR when I stumbled across this article by John Muller for Greater Greater Washington. The article talks about a project underway to turn a vacant apartment building on Mellon Street in Congress Heights into 40+ units of transitional housing. Let me go on the record right now and say I was against the idea in 2009,  20102011, and I am still against it now. Any plans to bring yet more transitional housing to Mellon street and to Ward 8 in general is short-sighted to say the least. It is also a possible violation of Title XI, the zoning code that prohibits these type of residential facilities from being within 500 feet of each other (yet for some reason doesn't seem to be enforced). For those of you not familiar with Mellon Street SE there is already a large transitional facility next door to Wilson Courts and several other transitional housing and group home projects on the street. The immediate area is already over-saturated with more transitional housing than we can handle.  Those familiar with the area know there is a large homeless shelter across the street at Saint Elizabeths and a dozen or so more transitional housing projects in a three block radius. More of the same is not going to move this portion of Congress Heights (which by the way is directly off the main business corridor) toward revitalization. It is already near impossible to get basic city services such as public trash cans installed on these blocks. It is no wonder most (if not all) of the residents here say "enough is enough" when it comes to bringing more social service organizations and transitional facilities to the neighborhood. The land may be "cheap" but it does have value to the people who call this place their home.

Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry recently said that only 25% of Ward 8 residents own their home, the other 75% rent. That's a big problem. Not only do we need to get residents on the path to home ownership but we need to make sure we give them reasons to want to stay here in Ward 8 when they are ready to buy a home. It's not about limiting the number of rental properties in Ward 8 it is about improving the quality of life in Ward 8 so that people will want to buy a home here. To do that Ward 8 needs to have a shot at the same revitalization that has transformed neighborhoods west of the river.

Ward 8 making sure our voice is heard.

Hope may spring eternal but everyone has their limits and even the most committed and dedicated get tired of having to leave their Ward for basic amenities such as food and retail options. There are 70,000+ residents in Ward 8 and we have one sit-down restaurant (an IHOP) and only one grocery store. How that is not considered a major failing in the city's economic development plan I will never know. It should be of major concern to all DC residents, not just those that live east of the river. For this to be the Nation's Capital yet this area has less retail and food options than a second rate strip mall is just shameful.

I've said it before and I will say it again. Ward 8  can not continue to be the dumping group for all of the city's social service programs and expect businesses to invest here. We need residential and commercial variety. We need quality businesses that can provide much needed services and goods while creating jobs for our residents. We need entertainment, cultural, and education opportunities that will keep residents engaged and make Ward 8 a place people want to visit.  We need homeowners who can invest in our community for the long haul and contribute to local commerce. We need a livable, walkable, and vibrant neighborhood for families to grow.

Anacostia residents voice their concerns about
another homeless shelter on main street

Perhaps this is why after nearly six years of living here I am skeptical about the significant positive impact t Saint Elizabeths is supposed to have on my Congress Heights neighborhood -- at least in its current form.  For me, the jury is still out. Perhaps it is because I see so few east of the river residents at the table working on this project. I'm not talking about residents who attend community meetings or volunteer their time, I am talking about Ward 8 professionals who are part of the planning team and not just the community outreach portion of it.  Despite my best efforts I am not convinced (yet) by all the claims made during presentations to the community. I look to what has been happening here for decades and what is happening here every day and I am not entirely hopeful for tomorrow. To be fair, I am not entirely convinced that all of our current Ward 8 "leadership" is prepared for the reality of tomorrow and thus how to make sure our residents and local business owners are prepared. It is one thing to yell "unfair" in community meetings, it is another thing to be able to articulate the deficiencies in a challenged plan, outline the specifics of a feasible plan and then execute that plan. I think that Ward 8 economic development has been prepackaged in such a way that over time I am not entirely sure that most residents and business owners know how to articulate what they need to make the powers that be accountable. And thus, the gap between east and west of the river widens, residents get frustrated, and everyone (the DC government included) starts looking for a one size fits all solution.

If I were to be 100% honest I am way more excited (and hopeful) about what is happening in the Anacostia neighborhood now than what may be happening in Congress Heights later. There is a buzz of activity on that end of the MLK corridor that has me wondering why things seem so silent and sporadic on this end.

Full Disclosure: I think everyone now knows I work for a nonprofit organization in Anacostia and our mission is the revitalization of Anacostia through the creative economy and small business development. We don't work on big projects, our focus is the development of local small businesses and bringing opportunities to Anacostia (like the new Anacostia playhouse) that are in line with the neighborhood's short and long-term needs and goals. While my job gives me an opportunity to work on   economic development opportunities for Anacostia it's not the only reason why I am so hopeful.  In my humble opinion things are coming together faster (and in a more comprehensive way) in Anacostia because the small businesses, landowners and residents of that neighborhood are doing three things right. The first, everyone is working together;  second, they are not putting all their eggs in one basket; third they are open to partnerships from both within and outside of Ward 8.

LUMEN8Anacostia Festival in Anacostia
(April 2012)
Anacostia is improving their neighborhood one house, one block, one business, one storefront, and one road project at a time.  The people of Anacostia are not expecting one big government intervention to transform their neighborhood overnight (nor would they want it to). Without putting the District government on blast (okay maybe a little) I think Anacostia residents and businesses are more than a little skeptical of the idea that city owned projects automatically equal progress. There are a lot of city owned buildings in Anacostia that are not only vacant and blighted but have been vacant and blighted for a long time.  Those inactive properties do nothing to move the ball forward on the look or feel of progress, especailly on Anacostia's business district. If there doesn't appear to be a plan to transform these much smaller properties into viable economic development options (at least temporarily)  I wonder how the District can be expected to solict and execute large scale development opportunities on the Saint E's campus.  Perhaps that is why Anacostia is not waiting for the city to activate their properties and is instead on the ground improving the strength of the area and themselves.  Anacostia residents know that a neighborhood that is stronger economically and politically is in a better position to influence large projects coming to their neighborhood than be influenced by large projects coming to their neighborhood. In short, Anacostia residents want to be the ones doing the choosing, they don't want to be the ones hoping to be chosen.  Therefore most in Anacostia want to stem the tide of social service providers pouring into their community while at the same time developing more opportunities for businesses to thrive.

The HIVE 2.0 Grand Opening in Anacostia
(Nov 2012)
It also doesn't hurt that a significant portion of the Anacostia business district is designated a historic district, a great tool that allows the community to maintain its historic character and discourage the type of garish storefronts that seem to litter  the Congress Heights main street. A few blocks away from my home two storefronts on MLK are currently getting a facelift (possibly as a result of the city sponsored storefront improvement program). In theory, development of these Congress Heights storefronts is great but I have to wonder (and frankly cringe) at some of the design choices. Vinyl siding, neon lighting, and prison yard spotlights do not bring to mind images of charming business with history. Sometimes "new" is not always better. It would be great if there was a more specific vision for what the business district could look like and by that I don't mean a carbon copy of U Street or H Street.

In closing, please don't take these rambling thoughts as me no longer believing in the success of Congress Heights. I still do believe that one day this neighborhood and other Ward 8 neighborhoods will reach their full potential and will be considered some of the best neighborhoods in all of Washington, DC.  I am just realizing that the path may be different from what I thought when I first moved here with the bright eyed optimism of a new resident.

One thing is for sure. We still have a long road ahead.

Editor's Note: This post was originally posted briefly on 12/2/12 then I took it down to craft a shorter OpEd piece that is now ready. Still deciding when and where I am going to post the OpEd piece. Hugs to my dear friend who worked super hard to condense my sleep deprived ramblings into a 500 word essay. I hope you get to see it soon. 

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Anonymous said...

Great post

The Advoc8te said...

Thanks. I really appreciate the feedback. The op/ed piece that my dear friend David Garber helped me edit is shorter and focuses more on the side effects of oversaturation in the community. I haven't decided if or when that will be posted.